Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
15 Jan 2008
by Ned Macey
The San Diego Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer for a variety of reasons after their franchise best 14-2 record in 2006. The questionable move could only be justified if the Chargers could succeed in the playoffs where they had twice failed under Schottenheimer. A home win over an average Titans team hardly validated the change to Norv Turner. A win over the defending Super Bowl Champion Colts in Indianapolis? That is a meaningful victory.
The conventional wisdom in this game was strongly shaped by the two teams' Week 10 contest, which the Chargers won 23-21. The Colts, playing with a depleted roster, saw Peyton Manning throw six interceptions, allowed two special teams touchdowns, and still should have won the game. Last week's game was slated to take place with the Colts near full strength and playing in Indianapolis. How would they not dominate?
The general consensus ignored the possibility that the Chargers also did not play well in that game, particularly offensively. Pundits also failed to note that the Chargers were coming into the game with seven straight wins, certainly a longer hot streak than the oft-mentioned momentum of the New York Giants.
During the Week 10 win over Indianapolis, the Chargers offense was an utter disaster, in large part due to the inept play of Philip Rivers. The second-year starter was supposed to be Turner's pet project, and through ten weeks, he had seriously regressed from the year before.
Rivers gradually picked his game up and over the past few weeks, he was playing at an extremely high level. He was no doubt helped by the arrival of Chris Chambers, who was acquired midseason and gave him a second competent wideout to pair with Vincent Jackson. Since the Colts loss, Rivers has improved markedly on passes down the field. Against the Colts, it was Rivers' improved play that spearheaded the Chargers offensive attack.
In particular, Turner had Rivers attack the Colts down the field where they are usually impregnable. Rivers threw four of his 19 passes more than 15 yards down the field. He completed all four for 96 yards and a touchdown. He completed a deep pass on three of the Chargers' four touchdown drives.
The Chargers unleashed this same downfield passing attack the previous week against Tennessee in the second half, and these plays are a reflection of Turner's influence. Turner has stated that his desire was to diversify the offense to make it less dependent on LaDainian Tomlinson. This seems to have had a negative impact on Tomlinson, who had only a great season this year, not the other-worldly campaign of 2006. When Rivers struggled early in the season, the plan appeared to be a disaster.
On Sunday, Turner was vindicated when Tomlinson was effectively lost as an effective player in the first drive of the second quarter. The Chargers scored their first touchdown on the next play after Tomlinson's injury but, more impressively, scored three touchdowns and drove into field goal range on their first five possessions without him.
The results of the new and improved passing game were disastrous to the Colts. Over a 16-game season, the Colts only allowed 19 passes that gained 20 yards. On Sunday, the Chargers had seven. Particularly surprising was the Chargers' success in obvious passing downs. The Colts generally thrive when forcing an opponent into a third-and-long situation.
The Chargers completed their first five third downs, and only one was shorter than 5 yards. In the third quarter, they added a completion on third-and-14 on their third touchdown drive. The key man early was Vincent Jackson, who caught three early third-down passes. The playoffs have been Jackson's coming-out party, as the Chargers have used him effectively on plays down the middle of the field where he can exploit his size.
The problem with these deeper routes is that they are sometimes slow to develop. The quarterback needs time to make these plays work. The Colts defense is predicated on getting pressure on the quarterback, but Rivers was almost never hurried and had plenty of time to wait for the routes to develop down the field.
The lack of a Colts' pass rush is not entirely surprising given the injury to Dwight Freeney. The league's highest paid defensive player only had nine sacks in his previous 25 games, but his mere presence on the field completely changes how an opponent structures their offense. With Freeney and Robert Mathis rushing from both ends, and the Colts' zone defense behind them, teams double-team Freeney and emphasize short, quick throws to leave the quarterback in one piece. As a result, Freeney's statistics are down but the overall defense eliminates the big play.
Freeney was injured near the end of the Week 10 game against San Diego. Over the next seven weeks, the Colts defense did not decline markedly. The truth, however, is that they did not face an opponent with a truly vertical passing attack.
The best opposing pass offense they faced without Freeney was Jacksonville. The Jaguars scored 25 points, the highest output against the Colts before Sunday's loss. David Garrard averaged more than 8 yards per pass. The Jaguars noticed midgame the lack of a consistent pass rush and attempted seven second-half passes of at least 15 yards after trying none in the first half. Garrard completed four, including a touchdown.
Without Freeney on Sunday, the Chargers double-teamed Mathis and provided seemingly unlimited time for Rivers. He was never sacked and only knocked to the ground once. Rivers ended up missing the fourth quarter with an injury, but it was a non-contact injury as a result of planting awkwardly in the turf.
Defensively, the Chargers had been one of the league's elite teams in the second half of the season, but this was not their finest hour. They did manage to stuff the Colts' rushing attack, but Manning also had time in the pocket and threw for more than 400 yards. The Chargers survived thanks to three turnovers, but they were hardly impressive plays. On one, the still-hobbled Marvin Harrison dropped the ball after minor contact. The other two were interceptions on balls that tipped off of receivers' hands. Manning was never sacked.
The turnovers are what the Chargers have lived on all season. They led the league in takeaways. Normally, these mistakes are forced by their disruptive front seven. On Sunday, that group did play physically, but the turnovers appeared to be more the fault of poor execution by the Colts.
For the Colts, this is their second disappointing divisional-round loss in three years. Rumors persist that Tony Dungy is seriously contemplating retirement. His loss will be keenly felt, as he has overseen by far the most successful run for the franchise since it moved to Indianapolis. He successfully built a quality defense while allowing the offense under Peyton Manning to play at an extraordinary level. Still, the Colts have massive amounts of talent, a young defense, and a variety of skill players under contract for next season. They are as likely to return to the postseason next year as any other mortal team in this year's playoff field.
San Diego hopes that thoughts of next year are at least three weeks away, but to win next week in New England would be a Herculean feat. The Chargers were already crushed by the Patriots earlier this season, and now they have injuries to Antonio Gates, Tomlinson, and Rivers.
The good news first for the Chargers is that their defense's generally superb pass rush has the possibility to upset the timing of the Patriots' passing offense. The Patriots offense has been merely excellent when faced with a disruptive opposing pass rush. Also, the Chargers knack for forcing turnovers could create the type of momentum-changing play recent Patriots' opponents have been unable to produce.
Offensively, the Chargers newfound deep passing attack likely will make plays against the Patriots. The Chargers are still a run-first team, even if Tomlinson is injured, so the Patriots will likely be focusing their attention there. That should leave a number of plays down the field to Jackson and Chambers.
There's certainly hope for a competitive game, but the number of bad match-ups makes the nearly two-touchdown spread reasonable. First, even if Rivers is healthy, he struggles mightily against a fierce pass rush. The Patriots get consistent pressure on the quarterback. Unlike the Colts, if they struggle to get pressure with four rushers, they can blitz effectively. Rivers is incapable of throwing on the run or escaping pressure when he is healthy. On a bad leg, he will be even more immobile. Furthermore, the slow-developing routes will not have a chance to work, and the offense could self-destruct. If the Chargers are required to use Billy Volek at quarterback, he may stand in against the pass rush a little better, but the rest of his game is wildly inconsistent, and he is prone to making big mistakes.
Secondly, the Chargers struggle immensely with slot receivers. Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer are both good cornerbacks who handle outside responsibilities. Drayton Florence has been a liability this year. Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez both had more yards for Indianapolis than Reggie Wayne this week. For New England, Wes Welker should be effective, particularly if the Patriots extend him down the field a bit. If the Chargers bring one of their two starters inside to cover Welker, then Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth will beat Florence on the outside.
Still, a loss to the Patriots this year would be much less distressing than the Chargers' loss to the Patriots last year. That game at least provided the cover for the elimination of Schottenheimer and the arrival of Turner. Sunday's win over the Colts validates the move to Turner in most people's eyes because of the binary nature of football. Last season, the Chargers outgained the Patriots and forced three Tom Brady interceptions. The teams combined for five fumbles, and the Patriots recovered all five. The Chargers lost by three points. This year, the Chargers were outgained narrowly and only recorded two interceptions. The teams combined for two fumbles, and the Chargers recovered both. The Chargers won by four points.
In Norv's defense, this year's divisional playoff game was on the road against a team that, at least in the regular season, was superior to last year's New England team. Also, the injuries confronted this year were far worse than anything last year's team faced. The fact that the Chargers won thanks to the redesigned passing game is a credit to Turner, and he should receive his accolades. The win, however, says nothing about Turner's 10 previous years of mediocrity as a coach, nor does it prove him to be a better coach than Schottenheimer.
If Turner can follow this effort with an upset in New England, I'd be happy to label him a genius. Until then, let us just respect the quality work that he has done this year with special kudos for an excellent game plan on Sunday.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
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